What Is the Rapture?
Advent is a season for waiting. Of course, we are not waiting for the birth of Christ any longer. But we are awaiting the second advent of Christ, his return to earth. Those two advents are not far removed from one another, nor should they be. Christmas is a very fitting time to dwell on the return of Christ. But will Christ return in the future once or twice? It’s a good question from a listener named Nick.
“Pastor John, I know this is a huge debate, but I would love your thoughts. How many times is Jesus coming back? Is he coming back in the rapture (according to 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17) and then returning a second time to defeat Satan (according to Revelation 19:11–21)? Is Christ returning one more time, or two more times?”
My understanding of the New Testament is that Jesus promised he would return, and that in this returning, he would do a final rescue for those who are trusting him and a final judgment for those who are not believing in him. I don’t think there are two comings of Christ in the future, but only one.
“I don’t think there are two comings of Christ in the future — only one.”
Most of those who believe that Christ will come twice believe that the first return, the first of the two, is the coming of the Lord to snatch away the church out of the world, called the rapture. This would be a snatching away of the church back to heaven for seven years, usually, while the great tribulation happens on earth. Then, this is followed by a final — this is kind of the second stage — return of the Lord to establish his kingdom.
Now, I grew up in a home and a church that believed that view, called the pre-tribulation-rapture view. It is called that because there is a coming of Christ pre, or before, the tribulation, so that the church is taken out and spared that time of great suffering from the Lord at the end of the age.
Enduring the Trial
The more I studied this for myself — I can remember thinking about this even as a teenager — I just could not find two comings in the future for the Christian church. I once asked a very reputable Old Testament scholar — a really scholarly Old Testament scholar — who believed this view, “What’s the most important text that persuades you that before Christ comes in judgment, he will come earlier to take the church out of the world, and then only return in judgment years later — seven years later, or three and a half, maybe?”
His answer was unhesitating. He said, “Revelation 3:10.” It says this: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” In other words, he thought that that verse taught that Christians would be taken out of the world before God brought a great trial, or tribulation, on the world. But does it?
God’s promise to keep us from the hour of trial probably doesn’t mean that we are taken out of the world, but rather that God will keep us from the faith-destroying effects of the hour of trial. He will guard us. He will protect our faith.
In fact, 1 Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). I don’t think it’s a New Testament teaching that God rescues his people from trial, but he protects them through trial.
Relief at Last
Now, that’s not a good enough answer to the view. The passages that settled the matter for me were 2 Thessalonians 1 and 2 Thessalonians 2. Both of these chapters talk about the coming of the Lord, the second coming, in a way that makes two comings — one to rescue and one to judge — extremely unlikely, if not impossible, in view of what these verses say.
“Christ is coming again, and when he comes, he will repay unbelievers with affliction, and he will grant relief to believers.”
Here’s 2 Thessalonians 1:6–8. Listen for how Paul treats the coming to give relief to Christians, and the coming to give affliction to unbelievers, as one coming — both relief for us and affliction at the same time. Here’s what it says:
God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us [so there’s the two things that are going happen] when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:6–8)
Now, I think that very clearly teaches that Christ is coming again, and when he comes, he will repay unbelievers with affliction, and he will grant relief to believers. He says these two things happen “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven,” so this is one coming, not two. That’s the first text that persuaded me.
Killing the Lawless One
Then, 2 Thessalonians reads,
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (2 Thessalonians 2:1–2)
Someone had said to these Christians that the day of the Lord had already come, and Paul is arguing that can’t be. Now, how easy it would’ve been for him to say, “It can’t be because I’m still here. I haven’t been raptured away.” But he didn’t say that. That’s not what he said. He said, “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day [the Lord’s day that he just referred to] will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:2–3).
Then look at 2 Thessalonians 2:8: “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”
Just like in chapter 1, there is one coming, and Paul says it hasn’t happened yet because the man of lawlessness — that is, the antichrist — has not been revealed. When that happens, then he said the second coming will happen, and it won’t be to snatch Christians away, but to kill the lawless one with the breath of his mouth and the appearance of his coming.
Now, Nick refers to the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4, wondering if that refers to a first of two comings followed by a later one. Here are the key verses:
“Paul says the second coming hasn’t happened yet because the man of lawlessness, the antichrist, has not been revealed.”
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17)
That’s sometimes called the rapture. No problem. I’ve got no problem calling it the rapture. Then Paul concludes, “And so we will always be with the Lord.”
Now, my understanding of these verses, and I don’t see any reason to think otherwise, is that, yes, we will indeed rise to meet the Lord in the air. That’s what it says. It’s like a great welcoming crowd. Then, we will descend with him in his triumphant arrival.
Come, Lord Jesus
I recalled how stunned I was when I was around 23 years old and I saw for the first time that the word meet — “caught up to meet the Lord in the air” — is used two other times in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15.
In both of these places, it is a group of people going out to meet someone and accompanying them back into the place you just went out from. All my thoughts about this being a rising to meet the Lord in the air and then returning to heaven for seven years evaporated. That’s just not the intention of that verse.
It’s a rapture in that sense that we rise to meet the Lord in the air, and then like a great band of welcoming, we come back with him for his established judgment and rule.
My answer is that there is one great, glorious second coming of the Lord in our future. He will come once more to give relief to his church and judgment to his adversaries and to establish his kingdom. And I say, as I’m sure we all do with the early church, the next-to-last verse of the Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus.”